The beneficial effects of knowing or learning another language have been well documented. But what about speaking a dialect? Well, little by little researchers are studying this issue to see if there are benefits from speaking two different “dialects” of the same language.
Napoleon Katsos, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, together with colleagues at the University of Cyprus and Cyprus University of Technology, studied the cognitive performance of children who grew up speaking Cypriot Greek and modern Greek. They are two variations that are closely related but differ at every level of linguistic analysis (ie, vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar). The analysis involved 64 bi-dialectic, 47 multilingual, and 25 single language children. The three groups were compared taking into account socio-economic conditions, general intelligence levels, and language skills. Multilingual and bi-dialectic children showed an advantage over monolingual children based on tests of memory, attention and flexibility.
A recent Norwegian study found that children who were taught writing in two dialects did better on national exams, including arithmetic and reading, than the average. An Italian study did not find immediate differences between children who used a mix of Sardegnian and Italian and those who only spoke standard Italian, but differences in favor of the former emerged over time. According to Katsos, “This suggests that the benefits previously associated with bilingualism can be shared by children who speak one or more dialects. These benefits arise with any combination of languages that differ enough to engage the brain. They can be dialects of the same language, two similar languages like Italian and Spanish, or totally different, like English and Mandarin. Systematically switching between any two seems to provide extra stimulation to the mind, which leads to higher cognitive performance. The plurality is what is important and in this regard, dialects have been underestimated.”
Dialects have long been branded as inferior, the language of the common people. They are spoken throughout the world. In Italy, their use has gradually declined, and now it’s up to science to encourage their use. Some children see their parents’ use of dialect as “uneducated,” and some parents discourage children’s use of dialect. Roberta D’Alessandro, professor of Italian Studies at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics in the Netherlands, says “Neapolitan, Sicilian, Abruzzo, Milan, Piedmont, and Veneto have developed independently from Latin without passing through Italian. Many parents, especially in the south, are terrified to hear the dialect of their children. It is a serious mistake because it puts up barriers to their cognitive development. A child who speaks Italian in school and Neapolitan at home is growing up bilingual with all the benefits that this entails.”